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What I Did On My Christmas Vacation.

Decking the Halls in Sapphire, NC

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For all our love of travel, Matt and I have NEVER gone away for Christmas. It’s just not what we do.

As a child, my family spent Christmas driving. We’d drive from our home to my grandparents in Tennessee, which was 4 hours in one direction. Then we’d load up and drive to my grandparents in Alabama, which was 4 hours in another direction. Instead of hot chocolate by the fireplace, my Christmas was more vinyl car seats and Waffle House.

This is why I declared, upon becoming an adult, that I WOULD SPEND CHRISTMAS AT MY HOUSE. ALWAYS.

It's a rule.

I decorate our big old Victorian house with all manner of glittery, twinkly, pine-scented things. I bake cookies. I make candy. I play Christmas music until Matt is singing Bing Crosby in his sleep.

Christmas is my thing.

So, when Matt asked if I’d be willing to go away for Christmas this year, I am pretty sure I started to hyperventilate.

Before I managed to work myself up into a full blown panic attack, I stopped to think what it might be like to go away. Maybe I could make this awesome? Maybe this could be even better than being at home? Was it possible?

Could I go away for Christmas?

After looking at hundreds of potential Christmas options, all of them wooing me with their cozy cabins and snow laden streets…..I decided on the mountains of North Carolina. In the end, being able to take the dogs and go somewhere we could drive to in case the weather was too bad to fly was more important than whether or not the destination guaranteed me a white Christmas, actual reindeer, or had “tap your own” maple syrup farms.

It was Christmas Eve and we were headed to Sapphire, NC.

Because we were driving into the mountains, I had stocked the car with anything we might need in the event of a snow storm: a shovel, sleeping bags, hats and gloves, a gallon of water, flares, and 18 granola bars.

Given that it was about 50 degrees outside, this was probably unnecessary.

What I should have packed were paper towels because we discovered on the winding, twisting, mountain roads that Rooby is prone to car sickness. She is also unable to hold her 5 month old bladder for 2 hours. We arrived at the cabin with Matt still trying to wipe the dog vomit off his arm with an old Dunkin Donuts napkin we found in the glove compartment. I arrived with a lap full of dog pee.

Things were off to a rough start.

But all that changed when we pulled up to the cabin.

I knew I had chosen the perfect place.

It was rustic, but luxurious. Crafted out of 150 year old hand hewn historic timbers salvaged from two old barns, one of which stood on the battlefield at Gettysburg prior to and during the Civil War. The other barn was built by Amish craftsmen. The salvaged materials were lovingly crafted into a cabin that can only be called a work of art.

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While Matt got a fire going in the enormous fireplace, I set up a Christmas tree that I had brought with us. The end result was cozy Christmas perfection.

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We had Christmas Eve Dinner reservations at Paoletti’s, an intimate Italian restaurant that has been a favorite in the small town of Highlands for over 28 years.

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I wasn’t sure how I would feel about eating out on Christmas Eve, but we threw on something festive and stepped out into the crisp December air.

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Paoletti’s was a warm and indulgent experience.

The restaurant was PACKED. All of the people made it lively and festive. There was warmth and laughter from every table. Candles glowed. Lights twinkled.

Seriously…..it was merry and bright! Corny, but true.

We started off with cocktails while we looked over the menu.

Dinner started with a tomato caprese, with fresh basil and balsamic, and an arugula salad with goat cheese and pecans. We followed the salads and cocktails with a bottle of red wine and some hearty pasta. I have a weakness for meaty red sauce, so I dove into the Spaghetti alla Bolognese while Matt opted for the Penne alla Vodka. We wrapped up the evening with tiramisu and chilled limoncello.

I genuinely thought I’d be a little sad that I wasn’t at home, but I can’t remember a Christmas Eve I enjoyed more.

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MERRY CHRISTMAS!

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We woke up to the smell of woodsmoke and had coffee and cocoa by the fire. The only thing that would have made it a more perfect Christmas morning was snow.

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Christmas Day was a warm and cozy affair. There were presents and new toys for the dogs. I baked cookies. We simmered mulled wine. We took a soak in the big teak tub on the porch beside a roaring fire.

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I made a big Christmas dinner: rolls with olive tapenade, a pear and goat cheese salad, green beans with bacon and mushrooms, honey glazed carrots, parmesan crusted mashed potatoes, and the two biggest filets I could find grilled perfectly on the outdoor barbecue.

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Oh, and don’t forget the red velvet cake with a giant layer of cheesecake filling that I made.

Oh yes I did.

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We wrapped up the night with snacks by the fire while we watched old Christmas movies.

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The next morning brought a beautiful clear sunrise over the mountains and a hearty breakfast by the fire.

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Thinking we would be cabin crazy by this point, we had decided to drive to Asheville for some massages, shopping, and food.

Things started off well with massages at the Grand Bohemian hotel spa in their rustic luxe surroundings.

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We followed that by the best barbecue known to man at 12 Bones in the River Arts District. It didn’t look like much, but any place with a line has to be good.

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Matt’s ribs were fall-off-the-bone tender and his smoked potato salad had chunks of smoked meat that made it maddeningly good. The jalepeno cheese grits were delicious. My pulled pork was so juicy it made my mouth water, making it hard to remember I also had mac and cheese and sweet vinegar cole slaw. The square of cornbread was so moist and so tender it was more like cake.

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My favorite had to be the wedge salad, though. The menu described it like this:

Iceberg wedge with sugar bacon, tomato, cucumber, fried onions & spicy ranch.

What it didn’t say was that there was a plethora of crispy bacon…..that it was drowning in the most savory, spicy dressing that has ever existed…..and that it was BURIED UNDER A MOUNTAIN OF FRIED ONIONS.

FRIED ONIONS, GUYS!!!!! A MOUNTAIN!

This ridiculous pile of awesomeness is only $5.

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Oh, wedge salad, will you marry me?

After the high of fried onions left us, things started to go downhill. Quickly.

Remind me NEVER to go to Asheville on the day after Christmas again.

Asheville, a tranquil bohemian downtown that I have come to love, was a thriving, fire breathing monster. There were so many bodies on the sidewalks, that you couldn’t move from one location to the next without getting jostled and shoved like you were trying to get the last loaf of bread at the Piggly Wiggly on a snow day.

It was horrifying.

We quickly cancelled our dinner reservations for that evening, ran screaming to the car, and made our way back to the peace and serenity of the cabin.

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Were we becoming home bodies?

Why yes, I think we were.

A few more days and we'd be spending all day in elastic waist sweatpants and eating Little Debbie's while we watched the Home Shopping Network.

The cabin called to us like a siren. We couldn’t escape it. It was warm. It was cozy. The fire crackled and the sun glowed on the horizon as it set over the softly rolling mountains. The dogs sat curled up on the floor chewing all their new toys at once.

It was just a wonderful place to be.

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So, instead of a dressed up night on the town at Limones in Asheville, I got creative and tried to figure out what to make from our Christmas leftovers.

Filet, mushrooms, green beans, and carrots were quickly sauteed in a skillet with some fresh rosemary I had from the potatoes:

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Cream and butter were added, along with some spices, to make it creamy:

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Then the parmesan mashed potatoes were placed on top, it was baked, and VIOLA!

A Shepherd's Pie, y'all.

Top that, Paula Deen.

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Oh.....and smoked salmon canapes!

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Not bad, if I say so myself. Maybe if Shelley Duvall has made Jack Nicholson something like this in the Shining, he wouldn't have gone cabin crazy and tried to murder them all.

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Another beautiful sunrise greeted us the next morning. We knew better than to make plans that didn’t include spending 95% of our day at the cabin, so…..we didn’t.

Matt chopped wood. We ran around in the woods with the dogs. We read by the fire.

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We made a quick run into Cashier’s for pizza and wine at Slab Town pizza. We even managed to stroll around in a few of the quaint shops before we literally ran back to the cabin.

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Seriously. We loved it there.

In hindsight, we should have just had our last meal at the cabin, but I had only brought enough food to make one meal and we had already managed to get two out of it. Three was simply out of the question unless we wanted sugar cookies and scrambled eggs for dinner.

We had made reservations at the Brown Trout, primarily because I saw lots of white twinkly lights and a fireplace when I searched it out online.

And it did indeed have lots of twinkly lights and a fireplace.

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Unfortunately, that is where the awesomeness ended.

The food was fine….spaghetti and meatballs for me (hey, there is nothing wrong with spaghetti, pizza, and spaghetti a 48 hour period….nothing…it was my Christmas and if I wanted to spend it eating spaghetti every day, I could) and the trout for Matt. It was good, not special, but good.

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The problem was that it took an hour and a half to get our meal served in this very uncrowded restaurant.

An hour and a half for average food is not fabulous. This is Matt's "I'm unimpressed" face:

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Maybe if my plate had been covered in fried onions when it arrived……

Our last morning dawned misty and cool. The fog rolled over the mountains and into the valley as we packed up Christmas and headed home.

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When all was said and done, did I like being away for Christmas?

So much that we are already planning for next year.

Happy New Year!

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Next up? We’re heading to Key West to EAT ALL THE FOOD.

Posted by vicki_h 13:40 Archived in USA Tagged mountains christmas highlands north_carolina asheville blue_ridge cashiers Comments (0)

An Impromptu Fall Road Trip

Sometimes you just need to pack up and go. No plans, no reservations, just pure spontaneity.

Nothing can make this happen faster than having plans to go somewhere else that fall through at the last minute.

That's what happened to us in October. We had planned a trip down to Abaco to soak in the last of the sun's rays before the chill season set in. Unfortunately, the day before our trip, we realized the weather down there was going to be crap. Rain, storms, rain, more storms, and then some rain.

After being stuck inside for 3 days thanks to Tropical Storm Arthur in July....I said "no thank you" to this repeat possibility.

Sure, we could have just cancelled and gone to work instead. But why the hell would we do that????? We had a few days off. I had to go somewhere.

It was a little past peak color season, but we decided to pack up the pooches and head to the mountains of NC. It's quick, it's easy, and I scored an amazing last minute deal on an absolute PALACE of a house.

First order of business is to introduce you to the newest member of the family. In order to do that, we must say goodbye to my absolute sweetheart, the best dog in the whole wide world, my favorite travel buddy Zoey who we lost in September.

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When we found out she was sick, we worried about Bella, so we got her a friend to help her transition. Best. Decision. Ever. This little bundle of sunshine saved us all. Say "hello" to Rooby:

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She's Shihtzu and Yorkie. I call that a shittie.

So, with no plans at all, we packed up Bella and her puppy. We were off to the mountains!!!!

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On the way, we stopped at the best hole-in-the-wall pizza place I have discovered to date. Hidden in the middle-of-nowhere, Smoky Mountain Bakers makes some of the most amazing artisanal pizzas and breads in their wood fired oven. And they do it all in what is a glorified garden shed.

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Bellies full of dough and cheese, we headed up winding mountain roads to find our home for the weekend. And what a home it was. This place was AMAZING. HUGE. GORGEOUS.

I wanted to live here forever.

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Two living rooms. A study. A huge deck with amazing views to forever.

Trying to choose from the FIVE gorgeous bedrooms was nearly impossible. I was tempted to sleep in a different room every night. I wanted to sleep in them all.

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We settled on the upstairs master. Not only because it was beautiful, but because it was the only bedroom on the main level. Little Rooby had not yet mastered the art of stairs. She was only 6 inches tall, after all.

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We got settled in and made sure we had the essentials. Yep. Booze and candy. We were set.

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The house was on a golf course and, despite the fact that it was a beautiful day, no one was playing, so we let the dogs run loose. Bella quickly let us know that she loves golf course grass and wants us to move.

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Rooby agreed.

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When you are surrounded by this much pure dog joy, how can you not feel happy?

All that golf course dashing worked off our pizza, so it was time to search out some dinner. In the 24 hours that I had to actually put this trip together, I had discovered that the Switzerland Inn, a cozy old fashioned mountain motel not far from where we were staying, had a Friday night seafood buffet with all you can eat crab legs.

All you can eat crab legs is the only thing Matt loves more than 50 cent Happy Hour Oysters.

The drive down was on the winding Blue Ridge Parkway. The peak color was past, but there was still some beautiful color left.

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When we found the Switzerland Inn, it took me back to my childhood. It was exactly the kind of place we would have stayed on a road trip with my parents, right after we had lunch at the Waffle House and stopped 7 times along the interstate so that my parents could threaten my brothers and I with severe bodily harm if we didn't stop fighting in the backseat.

It was quaint and homey and had a view that stretched across the mountains. The dining room was set up with a variety of stations that had large peel-and-eat gulf shrimp, several fish specialties, a prime rib carving station, various salads....but the belle of this ball was definitely the crab leg station.

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No one went to bed hungry that night.

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We woke up the next day to beautiful weather and decided to do nothing more than drive a scenic portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway, taking in the Linville Viaduct and Moses Cone Park along the way.

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Then it was on to a boozy lunch at Bistro Roca in Blowing Rock. It had become a favorite stop of ours on previous trips. Lunch cocktails were followed by mussels and a spicy habi burger. Delish!

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The only proper way to follow a boozy lunch is to do some shopping. The quaint shops of Blowing Rock provided the perfect place to do just that.

I was grossly disappointed that no one told me it was costume day, though. A Wonder Woman costume would have rounded out the day nicely.

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We spent the afternoon relaxing by the fire at the house, letting Bella bounce on the golf course turf, and catching naps. It was a wonderfully lazy day.

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Dinner that night was at another of our favorite places in the area, Artisanal Restaurant in Banner Elk. The restaurant is not only beautiful, but the food is heavenly.

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We started things off with a couple of their house cocktails and a cast iron pan of deliciously buttery rolls.

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For a small plate I had the house made gnocchi.

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Next up for me was the quail. I love quail, but I hate the presentation of it. It just looks too much like....well....like a LITTLE BITTY BIRD. ON A PLATE.

But that didn't stop me from sucking the bones clean.

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Of course we had to have dessert.

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The next morning, we found ourselves faced with another beautiful day with absolutely no agenda.

We drove.

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We ended up at the Daniel Boone Inn. The huge line coming out the door and wrapping around the building told us the food inside must be good. We had nothing else to do, so we got in line.

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After about 45 minutes, we were ushered inside the old farmhouse and seated at a table. Bowls of food were brought out and covered the table. Fried chicken, biscuits with country ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, banana pudding, fried apples.....I now knew what that whole line thing had been about. We set about the business of stuffing our faces with country goodness.

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We waddled out of the Daniel Boone Inn fat and happy and full of mashed potatoes.

And we drove some more.

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When we found this pumpkin patch, I just had to get out for a photo.

I look insane here.

I blame in on all the mashed potatoes. I was high on carbohydrates.

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We kept driving.

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Before we knew it, we found ourselves at the Banner Elk Winery. Okay, it was no accident. We were in need a wine down afternoon. We grabbed a couple of bottles and sat outside in the glorious sunshine.

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After that, we all lapsed into a mashed potato and wine induced coma and napped the afternoon away.

We woke up in time for dinner. Yay!

We had reservations at the Gamekeeper Restaurant and were not sure where to find it. After driving an eternity into the pitch black darkness of nowhere, NC and winding forever and ever and ever up a lonely mountain road, we were certain the GPS was WRONG. Instead, we found ourselves at the coziest restaurant imaginable.

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The atmosphere was rustic and warm and the food was delicious. They specialize in game, so the boys were able to eat all the wild beasty things they wanted. They ordered a mixed game grill. Then they had some emu, bison, elk chops and god knows what else. I went tame with the cornmeal crusted rainbow trout with polenta and a caper salsa.

You know how sometimes things look a lot better in person than in a photo? Sometimes a food photo just doesn't work out. Blame it on the lighting, the four glasses of wine you had before trying to take a picture in the dark by lighting it up with your cell phone, what have you, but sometimes it's simply a FAIL. Despite the appearance of these photos, I did not, in fact, eat a plate of vomit, a bloody pile of grits and a tapeworm salad.

FOOD PHOTO FAIL

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It was time to head home, so we took the very scenic route home.

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Because this was a fantastically uneventful trip, but you, dear reader, have persevered through my blog nonetheless, I will reward you with the delightfulness of puppies running through leaves and baby cows, because really, what's better than that?

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Posted by vicki_h 12:33 Archived in USA Tagged fall autumn boone blue_ridge_parkway north_carolina banner_elk blowing_rock linville banner_elk_winery Comments (0)

Stepping Out of Bounds in Glacier National Park

Bonus! Video!

Posted by vicki_h 10:15 Archived in USA Tagged hiking camping national_park montana glacier_national_park kalispell Comments (0)

Stepping Out of Bounds in Glacier National Park: Day 8

Y'all come back now, ya hear?

Day Eight: Y'all come back now, ya hear?

It was our final day. We love the town of Whitefish but never get a chance to spend any time there on our trips to Glacier National Park, so we had opted to spend our very last day soaking in some luxury at the Grouse Mountain Lodge in Whitefish.

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Incredibly, it was another gorgeous day. We had been so lucky with the weather.

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We stopped in Columbia Falls for carbs and caffeine at Montana Coffee Traders.

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Then it was on to Whitefish. Whitefish is a quaint little mountain town. You can see the mountains towering in the distance, and it is filled with great little shops and restaurants.

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Like Loula’s where you can get the best pie in the known universe.

Montana. It’s all about the pie.

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Matt and I headed back to the lodge for afternoon massages which, after 60 miles of hiking and 7 nights of alternating between sleeping on the ground and sleeping on the world’s hardest beds in the historic lodges, was exactly what we needed.

Ahhhhhh……..

I’d like to say we ended with a bang – roping a grizzly in the parking lot or riding a bucking bronco into the sunset – but we did nothing more than have one final, quiet, fat loaded dinner.

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Tupelo Grill in Whitefish was just the place to have it. We started off with a hummus plate and fried catfish nuggets. I followed that with the panzanella salad: heirloom tomatoes, blue corn croutons, queso fresco, roasted corn, avocado, and a cilantro vinaigrette. As a finale, just to make sure I wasn’t cheating my body of needed carbohydrates, I had the almost famous baked mac & cheese with prosciutto, quattro formaggio, and a panko parmesan crust.

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We wrapped up the night with drinks on the rooftop at Casey’s.

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Yee-Haw!

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Dear Friends, I know I make Montana sound amazing, but it’s not all that great. Really. It’s not. You shouldn’t ever go there.

In an effort to consider your welfare, I am giving you several reasons you should never go to Montana:

Your boss can’t text you here. It’s a wireless dead zone. You know when Verizon shows that map? It’s one of the white spots. Pretty much the whole state. I think most internet still comes on a dial up. Seriously. Your boss, your nagging family members, that telemarketer that always calls you at dinner….they can’t reach you here. Why would you subject yourself to all that peace and quiet? Just crazy.

If you die there, they won’t find your body until July. There is simply too much space. What are you supposed to do with all that room? Go somewhere small. Like Rhode Island.

It’s cold. I mean, summer is only 2 months and winter is 19. You need a parka in July. And where else can you make a snow angel in August? Take my word for it, head south. It’s warmer down there.

There’s just too much beer. They drink it for breakfast. It’s everywhere. You’d exhaust yourself just trying to drink it all. And I’m pretty sure “open container law” means you are required to have an open container at all times. No one needs that kind of pressure.

One word: Glaciers. I mean, with all the global warming, one of those things could break loose and take you out at any moment. And they wouldn’t find your body until July.

You can’t escape the wildlife. If you like bears, wolves, wolverines, bighorn sheep, marmots, mountain goats, elk, moose, deer, beavers, ducks, and the biggest damn cows you’ve ever seen, and you like seeing them all in one day, this place is for you. Really, who needs the stress of a free range cow?

There is nothing up there but crazy, gun toting outlaws. Everyone is packing. And drinking all that beer. And eating beef jerky. That can’t be good.

You might get eaten by a bear. They say that, when hiking, always carry pepper spray and wear a bell. If you see bear scat, you can tell what kind of bear it is by looking at the contents. Black bear scat has berries in it. Grizzly scat smells like pepper and has little bells in it. A person in a sleeping bag? Pretty much a soft taco.

All that steak. I mean, who wants steak all the time? You should go where the broccoli is. It’s very high in lots of nutrients that are hard to pronounce, so that’s good. And studies have shown broccoli helps protect you from colon cancer. Go to California instead. Your colon will thank you.

The Unabomber is from Montana. Enough said. There could be more of them up there. Hiding. With guns. And beef jerky.

So much big sky and fresh air will just mess up your allergies. I mean, if you can actually breathe clean air for a week, what do you think that will do to you when you get back home to the pollution that you are used to? Better keep your lungs sucking on what it knows.

Seriously. Montana sucks. Go tell your friends.

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Posted by vicki_h 06:15 Archived in USA Tagged hiking camping national_park montana glacier_national_park kalispell Comments (3)

Stepping Out of Bounds in Glacier National Park: Day 7

MMMmmmm.......SPAM. Said no one ever.

Day Seven: MMMmmmm.......SPAM. Said no one ever.

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Without electricity, waking up in a room at the chalet can be a cold, dark experience. We got dressed inside our sleeping bags, groomed ourselves out of a Ziploc bag, and ran to the warmth of the common building where we could sip coffee by the fire inside and make breakfast.

It was another beautiful day.

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I made us a breakfast of hashbrowns topped with cheddar cheese, sundried tomatoes.....and ......spam.

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Yes. Spam. I am not ashamed. Spam travels well. Any food that has a shelf life of "indefinite" is a food you want in your backpack. Maybe not in your stomach, certainly not in your intestines, but definitely in your backpack.

The horse disagrees.

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We managed to hang around long enough to see the mule train arrive with supplies. Since the chalet is inaccessible by roads, supplies must be brought up a steep, winding 4 mile trail called The Loop. I would hate to be the guy that got to carry the mattresses.

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It was our final hike of the trip, so we wanted to make it a good one. The first part of the trail took us up and over Swiftcurrent Pass where you can see forever.

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Our hike would take us past the farthest lake. Really. And I mean that one waaaaaaay in the back.

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After the pass, there is a steep descent on a narrow ledge. This seemed to be the trip for ledges. You’re welcome, Matt.

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As we dropped into the valley below, we found a plethora of juicy, ripe huckleberries just waiting to be picked.

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Did you know that Montana has the largest grizzly population in the lower 48? It’s a well-known fact that they mostly eat roots and huckleberries. A lesser known fact is that they berries generally come from inside humans who at the berries earlier.

We stopped for lunch at the lake: Peanut butter and jelly bagels with dried bananas and Snickers.

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The last time I did this hike, I was wearing flip-flops duct taped to my feet because of some serious blisters. I couldn’t believe how much easier it was in ACTUAL BOOTS.

The end of the hike took us through the valley, through forests, wildflowers, waterfalls, lakes, and streams.

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And dangling chipmunks.

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And a moose! All my years of trying to see a moose out here and I manage to see two in one trip.

Apparently, all they do is stand in the water and eat.

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Our reward was a giant cup of huckleberry soft serve at the Swiftcurrent store.

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As we made the drive back to the west side of the park, I was still in awe of the beauty of this place.

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We checked in to the Belton Chalet, just outside the west entrance to the park. We had never stayed here before, and I was immediately enamored with the quaint, historic inn.

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Until they left a note on my car.

My very dirty car.

Oh, the shame.

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But it was time to celebrate! We had hiked about 60 miles, climbed sheer rock faces (okay, with cables, but still….it was scary), teetered on narrow ledges, and narrowly escaped death at the jaws of ferocious wildlife. What? Those ground squirrels can be aggressive with the Fig Newtons, I’ll have you know.

We started off with drinks at the chalet lounge.

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Then it was onto dinner at their world class restaurant. We started off with more cocktails. Of course. Then it was on to steamed Mussels served in a lager beer broth with jalapeno, chorizo, roasted cherry tomatoes, farm fresh greens & grilled toast. Next up was their southern mac and cheese, locally made penne in a pimento cheese sauce topped with sliced chorizo and crumbled pork rinds. Who doesn’t love a good pork rind? That was followed by a hot bowl of their savory potato soup. Finally, we shared the Montana Wagyu Delmonico Steak with scallion bacon cheddar mashed potatoes topped with smoked paprika chili butter and the Montana buffalo meatloaf wrapped in hickory-smoked bacon and served with a port wine mushroom demi and roasted shallot mashed potatoes with savory creamed corn.

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THAT, my friends, was worth hiking 60 miles for.

Posted by vicki_h 10:32 Archived in USA Tagged hiking camping national_park montana glacier_national_park kalispell Comments (0)

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